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February 04, 2012

‘Chronicle’ director: With great power comes… irresponsibility?

Posted in: Movies

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Matt (Alex Russell) exults in his newfound powers in a scene from "Chronicle." (Alan Markfield / 20th Century Fox)

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High school students Andrew (Dane DeHaan, left), Steve (Michael B. Jordan) and Matt (Alex Russell) become inseparable friends when they attain incredible powers in "Chronicle." (Diyah Pera / 20th Century Fox)

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Andrew (Dane DeHaan) succumbs to his darker nature as his telekinetic powers become stronger in "Chronicle." (Alan Markfield / 20th Century Fox)

What if Clark Kent, Peter Parker or Erik Lehnsherr had been part of the Facebook generation? That’s the premise behind “Chronicle,” a found-footage film from new director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of monster movie icon John Landis), opening in theaters this weekend. “Chronicle” follows three teenagers who receive telekinetic powers after a supernatural encounter, but what they do with their newfound superpower is hardly heroic. Critics are heralding the arrival of fresh talent in Trank and lead actor Dane DeHaan, and praising the film, which stands at 84% on RottenTomatoes.com. Hero Complex writer Noelene Clark chatted with Trank about “Chronicle,” telekinesis and what it means to be a teenager in the YouTube age.

NC: How did “Chronicle” come about?

JT: I’ve always wanted to make movies my whole life. And for about 10 years or so, I’ve been shooting a lot of little small, little kind of YouTube-style videos where I would merge documentary-like scenarios with fantasy or science fiction. A lot of those videos were out of context, like they wouldn’t have a broader story. There wouldn’t really be a storyline involved; they’d just be little vignettes, little snippets of life but with some bizarre fantasy twist on it. And after working on a lot of movies and on a lot of productions, I built up this laundry list of ideas. In 2009, I decided that I was going to go back and start directing more of these videos. So I looked at all my ideas, and I realized a lot of them involved a group of kids with telekinetic powers who would go out in public and demonstrate their powers as a way to show off to each other and one-up each other and cause trouble and mess with people. So in looking at the list, I realized that I had something bigger there, and possibly my first movie.

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"Chronicle" movie poster

NC: The film has a very specific tone and point of view. How did you develop that?

JT: ["Chronicle"] plays like a personal documentary shot by a very capable camera operator who has a reason for filming his life, and that reason being that he’s experiencing a lot of abuse in his home life and at school with his peers. So the first 15 minutes of the movie I knew would play out without any powers, without any fantasy or science-fiction or pretext or anything, just kind of play like a fake-out, like this is just this grounded documentary that this kid is shooting about his life. And then, suddenly, he would make this incredible discovery, and it would become this completely different movie, but always from this very grounded point of view. I decided that it wasn’t big enough to make it just about this one kid, so I involved two other kids, and made it a broader story about the psychology of friendship and how sharing this kind of a secret with a group of friends would be the thing that would make this unhappy kid a happy person and experience joy and fun for the first time in his life, and this would make him more confident. As he becomes more confident, he becomes more powerful with his telekinesis along with his friends, and inevitably, the way that these powers would affect each of these characters in their personal lives would greatly differ as they come from very different backgrounds. Kind of to make a coming-of-age drama where fantasy is an element used to heighten the dramatic relationships of the characters as opposed to being just the centerpiece of the movie.

NC: So just because they have superpowers doesn’t mean they become superheroes.

JT: Exactly. You know, if you gave a kid godlike powers he wouldn’t arbitrarily decide to go fight crime or solve the world’s problems. He would do things based on his necessities as a teenager. Probably have fun and mess with people, and eventually probably get in trouble.

NC: “Chronicle” seems very similar in concept and tone to the TV series “Misfits.” Are you a fan of the show? Was it an influence?

JT: I have seen it. and I love it. I became aware of the show when we were casting “Chronicle.” Somebody tipped me off about it and said, “There’s this really cool show that you should check out in England about a group of kids with superpowers,” and I avoided watching it because I didn’t want to get any cross-influence. But after we wrapped. I ended up watching it, all the seasons, and I fell in love.

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Director Josh Trank lines up a shot on the set of "Chronicle." (Alan Markfield / 20th Century Fox)

NC: So of all the superpowers, why telekinesis?

JT: Because it’s the greatest superpower of all time. It lends itself to an extreme narcissism. We’re all narcissistic in our own ways, and to have the ability to control objects with your mind, to be able to manipulate your environment, that’s a kind of a power that would heighten your ego and your personality, and the best and the worst of who you are would end up on public display. Another reason is that it’s kind of like a gateway power. So if you can move objects with your mind, you could probably move your body with your mind, and that would become flying. So it’s like a two-for-one.

NC: There have been a lot of found-footage movies lately, but “Chronicle” seems to blend traditional cinematography with the home video vibe.

JT: I came to another sort of epiphany that if this kid is filming his life, and he has telekinesis, he would inevitably discover that he can operate his camera telekinetically. … It was kind of twofold. On one hand, we wanted to shoot a movie in the style where eventually the audience forgets that it’s found footage, and they can get into the cinematic qualities that we suggest our character Andrew is creating for himself. He’s the star of his own movie. He’s moving the camera around with his mind. He’s on this kind of spontaneous journey which turns into a downward spiral, and we’re just along for the ride. On the other hand, there’s definitely kind of a bigger, meta comment that we were imposing in the film about kind of the self-photographed nature of this generation right now in high school. And how every teenager right now has a camera on them and they’re kind of aimlessly documenting every moment of their life. Everything you see on YouTube and on Facebook and on Vimeo, it’s like this living, never-ending video collage. So to make a movie like this, audiences now, they’ll be able to watch this and accept it very easily.

NC: Your cast is comprised of a lot of fresh faces. Was that a deliberate decision?

JT: We wanted to have new faces in this movie, without necessarily subscribing to the method of finding an unknown non-actor to serve as the realistic basis of our characters, but to find actual young, trained, insanely talented actors who are on the cusp of breaking out in some way. Because we felt inherently that this was not just a found-footage movie, but it was a movie movie. We wanted the film to kind of cross that line a little bit. We were big fans of Dane DeHaan’s work on “In Treatment,” and he just really embodied Andrew and the kind of actor that we were looking for. Because he had this extreme vulnerability to him and this kind of fiery rage and strength and this very childlike nature about him. He starts out unhappy and lonely, and he goes to this place of experiencing extreme joy. We wanted to find an actor who could capture this range of emotion in an authentic way, and he was perfect for that. We sent him the script, and he really loved it. We probably auditioned a thousand more actors for Matt and Steve before we finally narrowed it down. … When we got Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell together in the room with him, these guys had never met each other before in real life, but sitting next to each other, it seemed like they had this instant history with each other, and this rapport and energy, and it was contagious, and that was our group.

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Dane DeHaan, left, Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell use their powers to play pranks in "Chronicle." (Diya Pera / 20th Century Fox)

NC: So the screenplay is by Max Landis.

JT: I ran into an old friend of mine from when I was a teenager, Max Landis, somebody who I knew very briefly, but in the time that we knew each other, we shared a lot of the same passions for movies and video games and anime. And he was writing a lot of screenplays. … We were talking about what we were both up to and catching up, and I told him about “Chronicle,” and he said to me, “I’m going to be back in two weeks with a screenplay,” and he literally came back two weeks later with a script, and it just blew all of my expectations. He just wrote this truly brilliant screenplay about everything that I hoped that it could be about. Max is honestly one of the most scarily talented guys I’ve ever met before. He’s totally a genius. He’s the kind of guy who he’ll tell you that he can do something incredible, and you’ll go, “all right.” And then he actually follows up on it. And that was the screenplay — what he wrote, pretty much that first draft, is what we ended up selling to Fox.

NC: “Chronicle” is getting great early reviews. You must be thrilled. Congratulations!

JT: It’s completely surreal. The most exciting thing to me is the fact that this very specific idea of making a movie that embodies wish fulfillment in a relatable way, that it works, and that people are responding to it. All the ways that you try to make a movie perfect and you never can make a movie perfect, but what you can do is evoke real feelings out of people who watch the movie. And I feel like it’s doing that.

– Noelene Clark

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